Archaeological travel guide to Lampang’s Wat Kak Kaeo — a ruined 14th-Century Lanna Buddhist temple.
Name: Chao Ya Suta Stupa กู่เจ๊าย่าสุตา
Where: Lampang, Thailand
Location: 18.296099, 99.506679
Description: Wat Kak Kaeo is a ruined 14th Century temple featuring an elegant, full-intact entry gate, Ku Chao Ya Suta.
Getting there: Walking distance from city center.
Despite being one of the oldest cities in northern Thailand, with a history spanning through 3 kingdoms, Lampang does not boast a large number of ruined temples like some of its neighbors do. Instead, many of the older temples in the city have remained active and simply renovated or built over their historic foundations.
Wat Kak Kaeo (Ku Chao Ya Suta) is the only ruined temple in the Old City of Lampang. It sits at the center of Lampang’s Cultural Street, a sort of tourist night market. The temple dates from the late 14th Century CE, during the Lanna Kingdom’s rule over the city, and features many design elements in common with Chiang Mai’s Wat Jed Yod.
The Story of Lampang’s Chao Ya Suta Stupa
A Brief History of Lampang
Main article: Ancient Lampang, The Hariphunchai City of Nakhon Khelang
The ancient city of Lampang dates from the Hariphunchai Period and was originally founded in 680 CE by Dvaravati settlers from Lamphun, who named it Khlelang Nakorn. This name means “conch-shaped city” and was based on the shape of the city wall as it followed the course of the Wang River. The founder and first ruler of the Lampang is recorded as Phra Chao Anantayot, the son of Queen Camadevi, the legendary first ruler of Hariphunchai.
Khelang was an important satellite city for maintaining control of trade and resources in the Wang River Basin. This river basin runs parallel to the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Basin, but they are separated by a low mountain barrier running between. Lampang served this purpose throughout the reign of Hariphunchai and continued this important role after the Lanna Kingdom succeeded Hariphunchai for control of the area.
When the Lanna Kingdom finally joined with the Rattanakosin Kingdom (Siam, formerly Ayutthaya), all of its territories in northern Thailand came with it. With this shift of power, Lampang fell under the control of the Thai king in Bangkok.
Rediscovering Wat Kak Kaeo
The early kings of Lanna left the Hariphunchai Kingdom’s traditions of Theravada Buddhism mostly intact when they conquered the region. This meant that the Lanna Buddhists who moved into the already-existing temples in Lamphun and Lampang kept their practices alive. This did not change much as time went on, even when King Kuena moved the region’s center of Buddhism to the Lanna capital of Chiang Mai.
It was during this era following King Kuena’s actions that Wat Kak Kaeo and its Chao Ya Suta stupa were constructed.
The temple was built facing southward, toward the Wang River, and follows an atypical layout for a Lanna temple. Like many classic Lanna temples, the entry gate is in line with the viharn, and even has a paved pathway connecting them. Curiously, the exterior stupa sits to the right of the viharn, whereas most every Lanna temple I have seen has the primary stupa directly behind the viharn.
The entirety of Wat Kak Kaeo underwent excavation and restoration by the Fine Arts Department in 2010. In this process, archaeologists uncovered Buddhist artifacts confirming this date of late 14th Century CE. However, there was also evidence that the temple had undergone at least 2 periods of construction, spanning the period of time between the 14th-16th Centuries CE.
Following the restoration, Wat Kak Kaeo (Ku Chao Ya Suta) was registered as a site of national historical importance in Royal Thai Government Gazette Vol. 97, No 163, dated October, 21st 1980.
The Legend of Chao Ya Suta Stupa
A local legend regarding the name of “Ku Chao Ya Suta” tells of an elder woman named Suta, perhaps a nun depending on the translation, who cared for the monks of the temple, as well as cleaning and maintaining it. To honor her after her passing, the ornate stupa was built for her and given her name.
Clearing Up the Name of Ku Chao Ya Suta Stupa
There is some confusing terminology in the naming of this ruined temple. The actual name of the full ruined temple is “Wat Kak Kaeo“. Despite this, the name “Chao Ya Suta Pagoda” or “Chao Ya Suta Stupa” is the more common name that you will find in English signs and tourist literature.
However, “Chao Ya Suta” is the name of the street side entry gate of Wat Kak Kaeo, which is the most prominent and intact feature of the entire temple. It is not the name of the temple itself.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that this entry gate is not even the primary stupa of the temple. The primary stupa of the site is instead back and to the east of the main temple building.
Visiting Lampang’s Chao Ya Suta Stupa
On the north bank of the Wang River and within the ancient walled city of Khelang is the Cultural Street, which runs along where one of Lampang’s ancient walls once stood. Some small remnants of this wall can still be seen on the grounds of Wat Pratu Phong.
The Cultural Street night market is open on Fridays and meant to showcase items of traditional local culture, both for tourists and locals. Indeed, with Lampang not registering on the tourist radar, even for Thais, you are more likely to only see locals.
The rest of the week, this road is Wang Neua Road, a quiet but nicely decorated street that is home to Wat Pratu Phong and the ruins of Wat Kak Kaeo, the only ruined temple in the city of Lampang.
The Chao Ya Suta Gate
Sitting conspicuously on the street side and enshrouded by a low-hanging tangle of power lines, the Chao Ya Suta gate site is the real gem of the ruins. This ornate entryway (called “pratu khong” in Thai) is a common feature of northern Thai (Lanna) temples. The Chao Ya Suta pratu khong of Wat Kak Kaeo is exceptional in that it retains most of its ancient features, including the majority of its stucco artwork. Such a trait is very rare in most ruined Thai structures.
The gate’s octagonal base houses a rabbeted lotus design on the corners (this is the zig-zag feature seen at the base), leading up to a faux-archway door running through the middle south-north. Adorning the center of each corner is a mostly intact deva goddesses. Although some of their features are missing, given their age and the ruined state of the rest of the temple, the pattern of the original stucco designs is amazing.
In the center of the archway is a wooden beam where a full wooden door would have once stood.
Large niches on the side are a common sight in many other Thai Buddhist temples and are likely to have once housed Buddha images. Given their height and the amount of space on the base beneath them, these images are likely to have been standing Buddha images.
The roof of the Chao Ya Suta gate hasn’t fared as well as the rest of the structure. Where there would typically be a pointed tower (such as the gate on Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang, pictured above), usually in a bell-shape, this has long since fallen away. Now, the Chao Ya Suta’s roof is overgrown with plants, which, although damaging the overall structure, add to the atmosphere of the mossy ruins the gate below leads to.
Within the Wat Kak Kaeo Temple Ruins
Past the entry gate, the rest of the temple is below ground level. From the sidewalk along Lampang’s Cultural Street, you can enter the temple through the actual entry gate or a newer paved footpath along the left (west) side of the ruins. Either way requires a step down into the excavated ruins.
Following through the entry gate, the ancient paved pathway leads you through the center of the ruins. To the right is a raised mound with a tree growing from the top. At first glance, this might be mistaken for a bodhi tree enclosure. However, this is actually a small ubosot, the ordination hall for monks.
At the end of this pathway is the viharn, the main worship hall where Wat Kak Kaeo would have housed its primary Buddha image. However, this image and the building housing it have long since disappeared. Whether this image was among the artifacts found during excavation is not clear from any documentation I could find.
To the immediate right of the viharn is where the principal stupa (chedi) of the temple. All that remains of the stupa are the lowest levels of the brick base. No records of the stupa’s design exist, but it shares many design elements from Chiang Mai’s Wat Jed Yod, it is likely to have had a square base with a single niche on each side housing a Buddha image, and ultimately receding into a bell-shaped spire on top.
The entire ruins take about 10-20 minutes to explore fully, but it’s quiet and atmospheric on days where the Cultural Street market is not operating. This would make it well worth taking some extra time to enjoy these excavated ruins, unique in Lampang.
How to Get to Lampang’s Chao Ya Suta Stupa
GPS Coordinates: 18.296099, 99.506679
Like most of central Lampang, the Cultural Street can be reached by walking. However, most of the city’s guesthouses and general tourist infrastructure is over 1km away, meaning a bicycle or motorbike might be a more comfortable option. Additionally, Lampang occasionally offers the unique option of horse-drawn carriages within the central city.
The Cultural Street and its Chao Ya Suta stupa are on the north side of the river near the popular Wat Pratu Pong (named after the ancient Pratu Pong city gate). On Friday evenings, the Cultural Street Walking Market takes place. If you’d like to avoid the crowds when visiting the ruins, it’s best to choose another time or day.
Legendary Lavo princess and first ruler of Hariphunchai who brought Buddhism and Dvaravati culture to northern Thailand.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
Supernatural or god-like being in Hindu-Buddhist traditions
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Common name in Thailand for an ancient stone tower. Often used interchangeably with, or in combination with, prang, prasat, or chedi.
City in northern Thailand historically known as Khelang Nakhon. Founded by the Hariphunchai Kingdom to control the Wang River Basin, the city was later absorbed by the Lanna Kingdom.
City in Northern Thailand formerly known as Hariphunchai and the historic capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom. The city was later absorbed by the Lanna Kingdom.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
The “Doctrine of the Elders” branch of Buddhism which draws its teachings from the Pali Canon. This sect is popular in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.
Ordination hall in Thai Buddhist temples.
The primary hall of worship in a Buddhist temple
Thai word meaning temple
Wat Jed Yod
A sprawling temple complex in Chiang Mai built in 1455 CE by Lanna King Tilokarat to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Buddhism.
- “Chao Ya Suta Stupa / Wat Kak Kaeo (deserted)” bronze plaque sign. The 7th Office of Fine Arts Department, Chiangmai. Khu Chao Ya Suta, Lampang, Thailand.
- “Chao Ya Suta Stupa / Wat Kak Kaeo (abandoned)” sign. The 7th Office of Fine Arts Department, Chiangmai. Khu Chao Ya Suta, Lampang, Thailand.
- “Khelang Nakorn” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- Lampang Cultural Street. Lampang Culture Office, Ministry of Culture. https://www.m-culture.go.th/lampang/ewt_dl_link.php?nid=1599.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Ancient Lampang: Pratu Ma City Gate.” Paths Unwritten, 22 March 2019, https://pathsunwritten.com/ancient-lampang-pratu-ma-city-gate/.